Tuesday, October 4, 2011

His Girl Friday, Trinity Rep

Angela Brazil and Fred Sullivan, Jr. as Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns.
They don't make 'em like they used to, do they.

Really, they don't; looking across the new play landscape, I can only think of a single script I've seen this year that can match the density and heft of texts like The Front Page or Porgy and Bess.  (And everybody thought that one play was far too long and complicated.)

Which may be why we're constantly "appropriating" things, I think - rewriting them, re-configuring them, "making them our own" when of course they can never really be our own (more on that later), returning again and again to the rich, racy ground of the artistic past; we know in our bones that nowadays, the soil is thinner.

But of course, back in the day, things weren't only racy, they were often, at least implicitly, racist.  Which is great for today's appropriators; it affords their labors purpose, and gives them something to "excavate" and "renovate."

Two major examples of this artistic cottage industry have been on display in New England recently: the A.R.T.'s misguided Porgy and Bess, and Trinity Rep's crackling His Girl Friday.  But as I pointed out last weekend, these productions operate like opposed arguments in our ongoing culture war.  Porgy and Bess isn't really a racist work - indeed, it's pretty obviously an anti-racist work - so its much-ballyhooed "renovation" by Diane Paulus and Suzan-Lori Parks amounted to little more than grandstanding by two mediocre talents.  It was an elaborate misfire that, don't worry, I'll trudge through in detail later this week.

Meanwhile, down at Providence's Trinity Rep, something very different was afoot in John Guare's clever blending of The Front Page and its screwball comedy spawn, His Girl Friday.  Where Parks and Paulus failed, Guare succeeded - basically because he was working with two texts that, unlike Porgy and Bess, shared a genuinely racist frame.  And he had a straightforward, if radical, method of re-framing them; indeed, Guare not only renovated the politics of The Front Page and His Girl Friday, he completely reversed them, turning his freshly-minted, politically-correct amalgam into a new kind of critique of its period, authors, and self.

His very success, however, hints at larger questions with unclear answers, which I'll consider briefly at the close of this review.

But first - the review itself.  Should you make the trip to Providence to catch His Girl Friday, which closes this weekend?  Yes, you definitely should; the show is a big, brassy smash that channels the smart comedy of the screwball era if not, perhaps, its undertow of romance.  Both strains of theatrical feeling are evident in the original Friday, of course, which is a mash-up of post-divorce love-story and dark social satire."Hildy" Johnson (Angela Brazil), the former star reporter of Chicago's biggest daily, has returned for one last drink with the boys before getting (re-) married.  On the day in question, however, the year's biggest story - an execution at the state prison - is about to unfold just outside the windows of the press room.  Even the paper's hard-charging editor, Walter Burns (Fred Sullivan, Jr.), has shown up for the big event; which complicates things for Hildy, as the person she was previously married to was - yes - Walter himself, who'd like to get her back as both reporter and wife.

Of course in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's The Front Page, Hildy and Walter were both guys, and their relationship had a "Damon and Pythias" quality, as one wag put it.  (Their sparring bromance was loosely modeled on the antics of editor Walter Howey and reporter John Hilding Johnson, although details of Hecht and MacArthur's own careers in the Chicago press figure in the script.)  Director Howard Hawks ditched the gay subtext entirely, however, by turning "Hildebrand" into "Hildegard" and hiring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as his leads - and the rest, of course, is Hollywood history.

Although not quite all of it is.  A certain racist taint that's obvious in The Front Page survived here and there in His Girl Friday - although lovers of the movie are usually determined to ignore it.  In the original script, the perp who's about to swing - and whom our wise-cracking reporters become determined to save - has been convicted of killing a black ("colored" is the quaint term) police officer; and while the crime looks a lot like self-defense, he has to swing, because the governor "needs the colored vote."

I'm afraid the racist cast of all this is just too obvious to ignore.  A white man threatened by a black man.  A gunshot in self-defense. An execution rigged to satisfy the "colored" masses.  Ugh.  And yes, this is what Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell chatter about, if you pay close attention, in His Girl Friday.  Sorry.  I love them too, but that's the awful truth.

And there's the rub as well.  The repartee from His Girl Friday is just too delicious to ever lose (for the record, Guare has added quips of his own that blend in seamlessly), and even The Front Page crackles with rude energy and gallows humor (literally) - as well as, believe it or not, a kind of outraged moral force directed at the press, the politicos, and even the public.

Which makes the racial cast of its story strange, frankly - and even stranger given that the politics of writer Ben Hecht were famously liberal; he fought the KKK and campaigned for America's early entry into World War II, among other things.  Of course he also wrote the script for Gunga Din (which Guare tweaks him for in Friday).  So one senses in his career a strange ability to play to racist sympathies professionally while fighting them privately - a not-unusual state of affairs in show business, or in business generally.

The deep irony in what John Guare has done to His Girl Friday, in fact, is that he has basically imported into the script the personal politics that Hecht (a Jew of European extraction, devoted to liberal causes) might have espoused if he felt he'd been able.  In Guare's version, the convict who is about to be hanged is, indeed, a Jew of European extraction (he's even Czech), who has killed a Nazi sympathizer in what - yes - looks a lot like self-defense.  And this time it's the isolationist and German vote, rather than the "colored" vote, that's calling for his neck.

Which gives Guare room enough and time to remind us of what precisely was going on politically in America in the late 30's (to up the moral ante, he even re-sets the script to the end of August 1939, just before Hitler invaded Poland).  Somehow Americans like to forget, I think, that in the late 30's, conservatives all looked much more like Neville Chamberlain than Winston Churchill - whatever they may claim today - and isolationists unapologetically shared political bedclothes with fascist sympathizers.  We also prefer not to recall that it was the Democrats, not the Republicans (in general) who opposed Hitler - although the political landscape was complex enough, I admit, to scramble the particulars of any moral accounting on this score (figures as diverse as the young Gerald Ford, Gore Vidal, and Kurt Vonnegut all opposed fighting Germany).

Hildy and the "boys" on Eugene Lee's sprawling set.

At any rate, Guare goes even further than that particular argument - he labels his perp a "terrorist" at key moments, which provoked murmurs of dissent in the Trinity audience I caught the play with.  A Jewish terrorist? you could hear people wonder aloud.  Yes - imagine Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell sticking it to the Israel lobby!  I really had to smile at that (Guare's a lapsed Catholic, btw, so that gambit is doubly gutsy).

So political fireworks are constantly popping in His Girl Friday - but are romantic ones sparkling as well?  Alas - not really.  Brazil and Sullivan are both highly charismatic actors, and their work here is crammed with delightful detail - as two talented professionals besotted with each other's work (oddly, rather like the same-sex careerists of the original!) they're certainly believable,  but as battered lovebirds sliding back into the connubial nest, they're not completely convincing.  Still, their disillusioned wisecracks can work without that emotional undercurrent, and they certainly crackle here.

The rest of the acting is mostly crack, too.  The Trinity acting team is too small to cover The Front Page, hence constant doubling is called for - which actually becomes a kind of in-joke on the thinner theatrical resources available in the present day (Eugene Lee's expert set still sprawls, but the cast doesn't).  Director Curt Columbus (with help from Guare) has devised a zillion different witty ways for folks to be obscured for a moment - sometimes just barely - so they can change costume for their next role; the trick itself becomes a gag.  But it also hints at a melancholy, metaphoric awareness that we can't quite cover all the artistic bases anymore of a script as wide and deep as The Front Page.

Even though there are several performances here that do cover all the bases, and then some.  Trinity stalwart Brian McEleney, for instance, does his best work in some time as both a persnickety gay fascist (see, everybody gets fisked) and the cigar-chomping, seemingly glass-eyed, gangster Diamond Louie (people began to chuckle every time Louie staggered on, the performance was such a hoot).  There were similarly neat turns (even spins) from Janice Duclos and newcomers Brough Hansen and Lovell Holder, and really the entire cast was in fine form  - only Phyllis Kay disappointed slightly with a subdued performance as the sad streetwalker who kills herself rather than see her boyfriend's execution.

Of course maybe Kay felt she was bringing a few moments of emotional relief to the show - which, to be honest, it could use.  Sometimes when Trinity is firing on all cylinders (and director Columbus is filling every single second of stage time) things begin to feel a little over-choreographed and pre-determined - and a little broad and exhausting, too (Stephen Thorne, this means you).  But the lighter, more spontaneous touch we sometimes yearn for really belongs in the scenes between Hildy and Walter Burns, I think - particularly in Brazil's performance; whether or not she's getting the right kind of flame from Sullivan, she still has to melt a bit as if its warmth was there.

Still, this is as strong an outing of His Girl Friday (or The Front Page) as we're ever likely to see.  But what does its success really mean, I sometimes wondered?  Guare's text feels as if it has been designed to replace the racist original entirely - but is that entirely a good thing?  Doesn't it amount to rewriting history, in a way?  It becomes all too easy while watching Guare's rewrite to imagine that the press (for all its warts) really was on the side of the angels, that Hecht never suppressed his own politics, and that America really would have engaged with Hitler without the cruel prod of Pearl Harbor.

I worry a bit about all that, even as I applaud Guare's cleverness.  And I'll ponder those questions a bit further when I consider the failure of the A.R.T.'s Porgy and Bess, coming later this week.

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